Hear Me Out: The Latest from Beyonce, Jennifer Nettles and More

Beyonce scores big with new album, while Jennifer Nettles underwhelms

Beyoncé “Beyoncé”

It’s a new year, but we’re not done gushing over Beyoncé and that juggernaut of an album she surprise-dropped to a web blitz of industry-shattering joyousness. She was all like “I’m just gonna put this here” when the pop behemoth snuck 14 songs and 17 music videos up on iTunes, a game-changing move that was only outdone by the actual contents of the sprawling project.

Easily Bey’s most personally inspired, sexually uninhibited work, it’s what “Erotica” was to Madonna, what “The Velvet Rope” was to Janet, and what “ARTPOP” should’ve been to Gaga. “Can you lick my Skittles, it’s the sweetest in the middle /Pink is the flavor, solve the riddle,” she sexes on “Blow,” a flirty, innuendo-drenched ’70s throwback that has all sorts of roller-skating vibes radiating off its Donna Summers-esque glow (and naturally, it has Bey skating in the video).

Sex is recurring on “Beyoncé,” as is feminism, love, family, spirituality, death and self-image; it’s as all-encompassing as we’ve seen its creator, making for a provocative, multi-layered, career-best opus that’s reflective, sophisticated and decidedly not very mainstream. “Mine,” with Drake, is a morphing, six-minute-plus piece of minimalism that, despite its trippy style, is still profoundly affecting.

So is “Heaven,” the best of two child-inspired ballads (though the big-hearted “Blue” endears greatly). The song is pure and powerful, reiterating the sentiment that “heaven couldn’t wait for you, so go on, go home” – the “you” presumably being the pre-Blue baby she miscarried. In that context, especially, it’s wrenching, but it’s also real – more real than Beyoncé, known for her elusiveness, has ever been. Here, the star lets down her guard and, for just a bit, lets us into her heart, her soul, her world.

Grade: A-

Jennifer Nettles “That Girl”

It’s her first official release as a solo artist, but hasn’t Jennifer Nettles always been one? I mean, even with Kristian Bush, she’s the energy, charisma and voice of Sugarland. And it’s not the first time: In 1998, before she became one of the biggest names (and voices) in country music, Nettles fronted a self-titled alt-country group. Sugarland might as well be called The Jennifer Nettles Band, too.

“That Girl,” then, isn’t a surprising venture, but—even with Rick Rubin’s earthy production, and considering what she is capable of—it’s also not one that compels or captures like Nettles has with or before Sugarland. She pours her heart all over “Falling,” a drum-kicked soul surger, and “Good Time to Cry” and a stripped cover of Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock” —both demonstrating the power and spirit that make Nettles a vocal force to be reckoned with—save the best for last. The disc’s core, though, is tepidly fly-by, and besides “That Girl” —an almost wink-wink companion piece to Sugarland’s Grammy-winning “Stay” —it disappoints with melodically bland blues/gospel/rock and Nettles’ middle-of-the-road co-writes. Nettles will release another solo LP, because she should, and though “That Girl” is a refreshing-if-unsound break from Sugarland’s country pop—it isn’t the album it could be, but at least shows there’s more up her sleeve.

Grade: C+

Also Out:

Mary Chapin Carpenter, “Songs from the Movie”

Age has mellowed Mary Chapin Carpenter, who, at the height of her popularity, was a country-radio mainstay, delivering one buoyant hit after another. Her now-ethereal folk is embellished with an orchestra on this 10-song collection of previously released, recently re-imagined songs from the singer-songwriter’s esteemed catalog. Gorgeously augmented with soaring strings and brass from some of London’s premier orchestral musicians, and making the experience of these compositions anew (“The Dreaming Road,” “Between Here and Gone”), “Songs from the Movie” is like hearing them for the first time.

R. Kelly, “Black Panties”

When it comes to good-bad, it’s hard to top R. Kelly’s awesomely awful “Trapped in the Closet” soap-opera saga. Unless, of course, you’re R. Kelly and you’ve just released a new album called “Black Panties” (let that sink in for a minute). His wish to “Marry the Pussy,” a slinky slow jam that’s parody-bound, makes you wonder how people can even make a fuss about gay marriage, and bump jam “Cookie” gives new meaning to the “cream in the middle.” With the X-rated ridiculousness of “Black Panties,” the closet door is wide open and everything is on full display.

Chris Azzopardi is the editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com.

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